Peak Hours of a Flag Expedition – The Sea Seals of Lake Baikal

Terry Woodall - AFC
August 13, 2011 share
Artists for Conservation

Flames shot into the air and bright sparks twinkled into the night sky as I tossed another arm load of Siberian larch and pine onto the growing campfire. To my new Russian friends this was more like a bonfire, but for me, with the resinous branches on the fire and its showers of sparks, it became a fireworks celebration for this Fourth of July evening [America's holiday of independence]. And I mused that there was lots to celebrate since I could hear the nerpa colony slapping the water as I gathered wood on the bluff above camp. These reclusive animals were the objective of my AFC flag expedition, and with my expert guides, I had found them in their very remote summer haul outs on the other side of the globe.

It's not every day that you see seals swimming around in a lake - and you won't see the seal [nerpa in Russian] in just any old lake. The 7th flag expedition in 2008 brought me to this wilderness island in the middle of Lake Baikal to study this unique species. Baikal, the oldest and deepest of all lakes, holds a fifth of the earth's unfrozen fresh water in its far reaching realm of southern Siberia.

The cold, calm waters surrounding the island are crystal clear, varying with aqua colors of blue and green, with the rocky bottom visible to thirty foot depths. The beach of our camp gently curves to the north, and the ever present nerpa scouts curiously eye us from a safe distance. Ten miles across the water from our camp, the Svyatoy Nos Peninsula's majestic wall of peaks fill the horizon, and the very distant sawtooth ridges of the snow capped Barguzin Range are visible to the Northeast. We are surrounded by a vast wilderness as Lake Baikal is about thirty miles wide here.

The following evening the campfire was even bigger as the crowd grew unexpectedly. From literally out of nowhere a small catamaran sinking low in the water struggled ashore with an enormous load of goods and people. I imagined that these sea gypsies could have been on a Kon Tiki type expedition if Thor were still alive. As they pulled up and anchored to the white marble boulders found everywhere, we welcomed the three Russians and one Finn who were on a month's long filming venture.

The very knowledgeable and English speaking Finn expounded on the subject of freshwater nerpas to include Lake Saimaa and Lake Lagado of his homeland. Yes, I had heard of his nerpas and while defending the Baikal nerpa as the only distinct freshwater seal species, I pointed out that the lakes harboring Finnish seals were close to saltwater seas, and in some cases even connected to the sea by canals, while the nerpas right here were over a thousand miles from the nearest ocean.

As the animated discourses in three languages died down with the campfire, our new acquaintances on adventure expressed a desire to film the nerpas at morning light. "The nerpas are all around us," my Russian guide Eva explained, "It is as easy as hiking over this bluff behind us to the island's north shore. But you must go quietly and stay low, hidden behind the cliff edge, as the nerpas are very shy animals."

Chuckling, I recalled our first endeavour of observing the nerpa colony, having crawled on all fours over the lush, extra thick carpet of Siberian moss to peer over the cliff edge, only to have them scatter at the slightest sound or movement. Later, after they had become accustomed to our presence, it became a game of cat and mouse; sometimes we were ignored while we sketched and photographed, other times they slapped the water and scattered.

In that first encounter, we counted sixty aquatic individuals, and later, double that number. Altogether, with hours of quiet observation, there was more than enough nerpa activity to satisfy my field study goals in this isolated theatre of nature.


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